TAMPA, Fla. (AP) – A once notable American narcotics agent who used his badge to build a lavish lifestyle of expensive cars, yacht parties and Tiffany jewelry was sentenced to more than 12 years in prison on Thursday federal government for conspiracy to launder money with a Colombian cartel.
But even though José Irizarry admitted his crimes, he blamed former colleagues in the United States Drug Enforcement Administration for fostering a culture of corruption that desensitized him to the implications of breaking the law.
“When my client joined the DEA, he learned to be corrupt, he learned to break the law,” his lawyer, María Dominguez, told the court. “In this alternate universe, it has become easier and less suspect to accept. money and gifts “from criminal informants who worked with America’s first narcotics agency.
United States District Court Judge Charlene Honeywell has expressed disgust with the DEA for its failures and said other agents corrupted by the “lure of easy money” must also be investigated.
“It has to stop,” the judge said. “You got caught, but it’s obvious to this tribunal that there are others.”
The DEA did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Prosecutors described Irizarry’s crimes as a “shocking abuse of public trust.”
Irizarry’s claims underline the porous surveillance he endured over the course of his career, during which he was entrusted with the government’s use of shell companies, fictitious bank accounts and couriers to combat international drug trafficking.
They also raise new questions as to whether his colleagues in the Miami field office, where Irizarry’s criminal activity began, also abused the badge in their treatment of confidential informants who displace dozens of people every year. millions of dollars of dirty money under the supervision of the DEA.
Dominguez in court records revealed that since Irizarry’s arrest last year, he has met with prosecutors for “endless hours” to provide information on the criminal activities of “his fellow law enforcement officers. who initiated him to a criminal life ”.
Honeywell recently sealed “sensitive” documents filed in the criminal case, saying their disclosure could potentially hamper an ongoing criminal investigation, scare targets and hinder the cooperation of other witnesses. So far, apart from Irizarry’s wife, Nathalia Gomez-Irizarry, and a Colombian customs officer, no one else has been charged with conspiracy.
The Inspector General of the United States Department of Justice slammed the DEA in a summer report for failing to properly oversee what are supposed to be closely watched bites of the kind Irizarry worked on. Following the reprimand, which follows a string of scandals involving agents overseas, Anne Milgram, the new DEA administrator, ordered an external review of the agency’s foreign operations, which is ongoing .
The DEA has been reeling from repeated instances of misconduct in recent years, including officers accused of wire fraud, bribery and the sale of firearms to drug traffickers. Thursday’s hearing came just four months after another longtime DEA agent Chad Scott was sentenced to more than 13 years behind bars for stealing money from suspects, forging government documents and committing perjury.
The DEA hired Irizarry, 47, and allowed him to handle sensitive financial transactions even after failing a polygraph exam, declaring bankruptcy and having a close connection to a suspected money launderer who would become the godfather of the twin daughters. of the agent with his Colombian. spouse.
He pleaded guilty last year to 19 federal charges, including bank fraud, admitting he turned his money laundering expertise into a life of luxury that prosecutors say was funded by the $ 9 million he and his co-conspirators had hijacked secret money laundering investigations.
The loot included a $ 30,000 Tiffany diamond ring for his wife, luxury sports cars and a $ 767,000 home in the Caribbean beach town of Cartagena, in addition to residences in South Florida and Porto Rico. Before he stepped down in 2018, Irizarry’s ostentatious habits and tales of boisterous yacht parties had become well known to the DEA agents and prosecutors they worked with.
To further the scheme, prosecutors said, Irizarry filed false reports and ordered DEA staff to wire money intended for undercover bites to international accounts he and his associates controlled. The money should have been carefully tracked by the DEA in secret money laundering investigations, prosecutors said.
Irizarry claimed the bank accounts in question amounted to a profit-generating “slush fund” for official and personal travel by federal law enforcement, US prosecutors and confidential sources.
Dominguez said Irizarry accepted full responsibility for his actions, but his vision for the plot never exceeded $ 600,000.
During Thursday’s sentencing, Irizarry broke down in tears as he addressed the court, saying the biggest punishment was not being able to explain to his two young daughters why he was leaving for so long. He said he became a federal law enforcement officer two decades ago with a sense of great pride.
“Unfortunately, there came a time when I made a decision that went against who I was, that hurt my wife and embarrassed my country,” he said. “I should have known better and I didn’t. I failed.”
Mustian reported from New Orleans.
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